Sunday, January 09, 2005

Wet weather continues

It continues to be more like Seattle that SoCal. However, I have my own weather prediction. Sunny and warm with zero percentage chance of rain.

By next Wednesday.

Storm traps hundreds

Rain drenches foothills, snow overwhelms local mountains


The second wave of a subtropic-fueled storm swamped the region Saturday, soaking the foothills and battering the San Bernardino Mountains with wet, heavy snow that stranded hundreds of travelers.

Saturated hillsides gave way repeatedly from a steady stream of rain.

In some cases, car-sized boulders tumbled onto roads and had to be shut down, including Highway 330 and parts of Highways 18 and 173.

In flood-prone Lytle Creek, swollen water burst a levy early in the evening, closing the main entry way to the San Gabriel Mountains community.

Dangerous weather conditions are expected to continue today and likely through Monday.

The National Weather Service extended its flash-flood warning until late Saturday, and it may be continued for much of today. The U.S. Geological Survey has already issued warnings of potentially deadly debris flows, similar to what killed 16 people in Waterman Canyon and Devore on Dec. 25, 2003.

The brunt of Saturday's rain fell on still-tender areas charred in the 2003 Old Fire, officials said.

Many areas of the county received one-quarter to one-half inch of rain per hour, while burned areas saw about an inch per hour, raising landslide and debris flow fears because their fragile nature makes them more likely to give way.

As much as 3 inches of rain was anticipated overnight and into this morning, said Brandt Maxwell, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

"And that's on top what you've already had there,' Maxwell said. "That's not good.'

Despite some of the worst weather conditions seen in years, authorities reported no significant injuries from the second of the predicted four-day storm. Hundreds stranded

But it did strand as many as 200 vehicles on Highway 18 in snowbanks up to 4 feet deep on what is called the Arctic Circle between the Snow Valley ski resort and the Big Bear Lake dam.

Many people made the drive, ignoring electronic message-board warnings posted at the base of the mountains, in the hopes of cutting fresh tracks at the ski resorts.

"We knew it was going to be bad,' said El Cajon resident Nathan Smith, who, along with nine other men, picked up a sedan and moved it to the shoulder so a snow plow could get through. "But we didn't know it was going to be this bad.'

Dozens of volunteers and workers scrambled onto snowmobiles and snowcats to rescue the trapped motorists on the winding stretch of road. Eleven vehicles remained snowbound Saturday night.

"Even our vehicles with chains can't get through,' San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said at 10 a.m.

With a mountain rescue under way, Martinez declined to second-guess ski resort officials who on Friday optimistically invited visitors to enjoy the abundant snowfall in spite of repeated advisories issued since Tuesday of potentially treacherous driving conditions in the mountains.

"There's nothing we can do about that,' Martinez said. "Public safety, we've been issuing advisories about this all week. Sometimes your best bet is turn it around and go skiing another day.'

Kim Hermon, a marketing director for Bear Mountain and Snow Summit ski resorts, told The Sun on Friday, "We're definitely looking for a good weekend (turnout) and a good week.'

Hermon could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Authorities learned of the stranded travelers when county fire Capt. Dan Tellez received a call of a woman with chest pains at 5 a.m. and found the massive jam-up while en route.

"There were cars everywhere we couldn't even make it out to the lady,' Tellez said.

Fortunately, one of the agency's medical personnel was in the middle of the pack and found the woman, who was suffering from anxiety. Rescuers took the San Diego resident and her two asthmatic children to a hospital, Tellez said.

For the next 10 hours, Tellez and his crew brought water and blankets to those still stranded. Caltrans cleared the road, enabling some of the vehicles at the end of the pack to turn around and head down the mountain.

Firefighters faced pressure to rescue the remainder of the motorists once rain started falling. The rain created a slush that brought some of the snow, rocks and debris down the side of the mountain, Tellez said. Rescuers shuttled people off the roads and into shelter at a church.

A tour bus seemed to cause the jam-up, Tellez said. The bus, which had skidded on the highway, was "leading the pack.'

"As soon as the bus got stuck, he just stopped everybody, and that was that,' Tellez said.

Caltrans officials had closed the mountain to commercial traffic but the bus apparently got through.

Members of both agencies stayed until 7 p.m. Friday to enforce the safety warnings, authorities said. Patrols were conducted routinely after that time, but officials were also busy responding to traffic accidents and plowing the roads. Levee collapses

After off-and-on rain during the day, a levee protecting the bridge and road that links Lytle Creek with north Fontana collapsed and washed away early Saturday evening.

The bridge is about 1.5 miles north of Interstate 15 and several miles south of the village at Lytle Creek.

Even with the bridge out, the community still appeared better off than it was Dec. 25, 2003, when major floods and landslides tore through the area. The community still had power and phone lines.

Troubles continued elsewhere, though.

California Highway Patrol officers shut down Highway 330 at Highland Avenue, restricting access to mountain residents only. Stretches of Highways 138 and 173 also were shut down, and motor vehicles needed chains lashed to their tires for much of the mountains.

Heavy rains plagued the Cajon Pass, which, as usual, had very poor visibility throughout the morning.

The division between snow and rain sat along the summit of the mountains, causing weather there to vary greatly, Maxwell said.

Lake Arrowhead, for instance, had only rain, 3.65 inches of it, while the Arctic Circle area had an estimated 3 to 4 feet of snow, Brandt said. Big Bear Lake had a mixture of both.

Effects of the storm were relatively minor outside of the mountain and foothill areas, where intermittent rains fell but did little else. Early alert

As the day began in Forest Falls, Russ Dilbeck fired up his triple-axle Caterpillar snowplow in near darkness at the bottom of Valley of the Falls Road and roared into action.

Like countless county workers, contractors and volunteers, he rose early to try to protect residents and visitors.

"This rig can move snow or mud and rocks,' Dilbeck shouted at 7:30 a.m. while wind-blown rain lashed the tunnel of snow-blanketed trees forming a canopy over the road he was assigned to keep clear. "They called me out early. We're on alert.'

In Highland, heavy early morning rains alarmed some residents who live close to acres of eroding dirt pads for 248 new Citrus Estates homes. The mounds of shaped earth have been exposed to downpours throughout the current storm wave.

A sheriff's deputy responding to a 911 call checked on a temporary holding basin formed in the mud and found a generator-powered pump still properly funneling storm waters into a nearby arroyo.

"It's always a concern when you have construction areas graded in storms like this,' said county Public Works Director Pat Mead on Saturday morning at his department's emergency operations center. "They do the best they can, but sometimes they have problems.'

The county's 40-odd debris basins and network of flood-control channels had held up so far, Mead said. He and his staff were nonetheless worried about more incoming deluges later Saturday and today. Stubborn storm system

The stubbornness of the current storm system may tax rescuers, county workers, residents and visitors even more in the next two days. Some rain-soaked and snowbound people may wonder where all the weather is coming from.

Social critic Mike Davis, a Fontana native and former truck driver, opened his 1998 book "Ecology of Fear' with a description of a weather system some have dubbed another Pineapple Express.

"Once or twice each decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big, wet kiss,' Davis wrote. "Sweeping far south of its usual path, the westerly jet stream hijacks warm water-laden air from the Hawaiian archipelago and hurls it toward the Southern California coast.

"This 'Kona' storm system ... often carries several cubic kilometers of water, or the equivalent of half of Los Angeles' annual precipitation. And when the billowing, dark turbulence of the storm front collides with the high mountain wall surrounding the Los Angeles basin, it sometimes produces rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on earth, even in the tropical monsoon belts.'

Davis provided footnotes citing rain-gauge measurements in the San Gabriel Mountains to support the last statement. Flood-control engineers and hydrologists often dispute rain-gauge readings.

Either way, the current wave of storms is worthy of the nickname and Davis' summary rings true, said National Weather Service meteorologist Noel Isla.

"He's not a weatherman, but I can't dispute what he said,' Isla said Saturday morning. "This is a big event. ... Public safety-wise, if there's a downpour, find a safe spot or get to high ground.' Grateful yet critical

On Greenwood Avenue in Devore, county workers toiled through Friday night to keep the flood-prone street clear of rocks and mud, which come down the street repeatedly with the rains, residents said.

Annie Swindell appreciates the hard work and commitment of those driving earth-moving machines. But when she heard of the continuing storm-related havoc and other developments on Friday, she criticized county leaders and business owners who she said appear to be placing profit ahead of public safety.

"This report from the engineers? It's hard to believe. The engineers are the ones helping the county approve all these new developments,' Swindell said. "They're over-developing for income for the county, approving projects they shouldn't be, for safety reasons.

"The county is developing a reputation as too greedy, and then they go ask the nation's taxpayers for help whenever there's a disaster. It would be OK if we could pay our own way.'

The county recently secured more than $400,000 in federal funding for the temporary concrete channel that aims runoff and debris straight down Greenwood. Most of the homes on Greenwood were approved in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ski resorts and other mountain businesses who court visitors during dangerous storms have no conscience, Swindell said.

"That's like sending your dinner guests home drunk,' she said. "Back to the greed word the resort owners aren't thinking about people's safety. They're thinking about money.'

Staff writers Brad A. Greenberg, Alan Schnepf, Jannise Johnson and Monica Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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